Is this a giant Rube Goldberg machine in the port authority? [A Byte Out of the Big Apple]

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One byte out of the big apple
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New York City attracts captains of industry, innovators and creatives. It’s home to iconic skyscrapers and intricate subway tunnels, the neon lights of Times Square and the delicate flora of Central Park, brick-and-mortar stores and dotcoms – and they’re all driven by the manufacturing industry.

Join Thomas Insights Editor-in-Chief Stephanie Nikolopoulos as she pulls a ‘byte’ out of the history and future of the Big Apple in this monthly column.

Men in acid-washed jeans walked through the revolving doors of 42sd Street, entering the brown halls of Port Authority. Businesswomen in brightly colored suits with shoulder pads almost to their ears walked to their doors to catch the buses to the suburbs. Everyone had big hair. And great personalities to match. You had to do it in New York at the time.

As we waited for my grandmother to arrive on a Greyhound bus from Minneapolis, my family and I huddled around the new 42sd Street ballroom, a sort of Rube Goldberg machine.

Through my glasses of coke, I saw a ball descend a ramp of red thread, fall on a succession of metal bars. With each bar she hit, a different metallic note echoed – ding, Ding, DING, DINGGG! – like a mallet hitting the keys of a xylophone.

The ball then fell into a large dish with a hole in the bottom. It looked like one of those spiral wishing wells fundraising for charity at the drugstore, where you would throw a quarter and watch the room go round in circles, looping the full width of the well until it ended. ‘she spins around, disappearing into the hole. Here, the bullet performed the same action as the coin. This was Kepler’s law of planetary motion exposed.

Above, four balls collided. To bump. To bump. To bump. And yet, one way or another, the craft knew how to release each bullet one by one. At intervals they descended and descended a winding yellow ramp.

My pupils dilated in wonder.

We returned to New Jersey after picking up my grandmother, and I don’t recall seeing the fascinating craft again for many years after that, but the childhood memory stuck with me like a dream streak. Without the vocabulary to describe what I had seen, I attributed it to the wild fantasy that was and is New York City.

Then, decades later, as I climbed the escalator in the north wing of the Port Authority lobby, there he was. I walked shyly over to the cube, surprised to have stumbled upon the creation, and looked through the glass at the mechanism inside. The balls remained inactive at various corners of the machine. Only the sound of the footsteps of the commuters passing in front of me echoed through the Port Authority. I watched a moment longer, then caught up with my bus.

Contextualizing New York City Transportation in the 1980s

The bale machine was installed in the port authority bus terminal in 1983.

It was the year after Cats, which would go on to become the longest-running Broadway show at the time, premiering on Broadway, along with the debut of Late Night with David Letterman. Ed Koch was serving his second term as mayor. The economy was booming, but transportation in New York City had suffered a series of strikes, crimes and accidents.

In April 1980, there was an eleven-day public transport strike. Then, a few months later, the Transit Authority discovered cracks in the A-frames of their Grumman Fixible Model 870 buses and had to ground the buses. Like a Washington post writer said in 1981: “The loss also means New York City passengers have to wait extra minutes between buses. An extra minute between buses during Manhattan rush hour means 30 more people are waiting at the stop. In 1978, then again in 1981, the Staten Island ferry American Legion crushed.

“The 1980s could be summed up as the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ period of the subway system,” a source said. The metro cars were heavily painted with graffiti. In 1882, Willie Turks, an MTA auto maintenance worker, was killed in what police called a “racially motivated” attack.

The Port Authority bus terminal, which opened in 1950, had by the 1980s become an infamously dangerous space frequented by rapists, crack dealers and mentally ill homeless people. New York is a city of bridges and tunnels dependent on New Jersey commuters. It made sense that the New York Port Authority wanted to spruce up the joint with a ball machine setup that could mesmerize or otherwise captivate the rowdy and signal ingenuity and progression to the commuter.

How? ‘Or’ What 42sd Street ballroom Works

Described as “a cross between a mousetrap and a Rube Goldberg machine,” the 42sd Street ballroom – a delicious play on words – is an audiokinetic ball sculpture. It functions both as an art installation and as a machine.

In the 8 x 8 x 8 foot cube are 24 billiard balls. The balls run along four different tracks. The machine is equipped with more than 15 devices, which act to propel the balls forward, generate chimes and other actions.

The machine uses balance and weight mechanisms to move the balls down ramps and spirals and a wishing well dish. You can look 42sd Street ballroom in action in videos on YouTube, like this one.

What – or who – is Rube Goldberg?

Named after its inventor, engineer and designer Rube Goldberg, the eponymous machine uses a chain reaction system to trigger successive events towards a desired result. For example, a ball picks up speed as it slides down a ramp, it rolls in a bucket that descends and then knocks the ball over, which then flies into a domino, knocks over a whole row of dominoes and eventually lands on it. a switch that turns on a light bulb.

Some may remember the Rube Goldberg breakfast contraption from the 1985 film Pee-wee’s great adventure. And in 2010, the group OK Go centered their music video for “This Too Shall Pass” around a complex machine by Rube Goldberg.

Building Rube Goldberg Machines is a fun and challenging activity that encourages STEM learning in children. Several tutorials can be found online. The family-run nonprofit Rube Goldberg, Inc. even runs a series of contests.

How does a Rube Goldberg look like a mousetrap?

The traditional spring bar mouse trap features a trip which, when hit by a mouse going for nearby bait, is triggered to release the spring bar to swoop down on the prey. The mechanism uses a trigger to cause an event that results in a desired effect in a manner similar, although much shorter, to that of a Rube Goldberg.

In 1963, toy maker Ideal released the 3D board game Mouse trap, now distributed by Hasbro. Featuring 24 pieces of gear, a rubber band, a ball and more, the game teaches kids building skills, cause-and-effect relationships, and design decisions. More recently, Hasbro partnered with American Mensa to use Mouse trap to help children learn strength and energy.

42sd Street ballroom also captures this whimsical exploration of cause and effect, force and energy and creative design.

Fix what’s broken

Just like the hundreds of crosswalk buttons that were nothing more than placebos in New York City, for years, 42sd Street ballroom sat broken, only a symbol of a wonder that was once capable of giving New Yorkers a frantic break as they scurried from the bus to the subway through the skyscraper and bar and back again.

The machine has been reported to have broken several times over the years because it relies on “precisely balanced mechanisms”. In other words, if a lever got stuck, which could happen easily, it would blow everything up.

The Port Authority tried to repair it on site, but couldn’t, and eventually sent it in 2014 to Creative Machines, based in Tucson, Arizona, for professional engineering. With upgrades to the tune of $ 125,000, it’s working again.

In the past, a motion sensor would activate bullets as people walked by. Now it runs on a timer and also has a push button that puts the power in people’s hands.

Who imagined such a captivating installation?

When George Rhoads was a little boy, he went to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, where he saw an exhibition on clock escapes, that is, devices that transfer energy. in rhythmic rhythms. It controls the oscillation of a pendulum or the appeasement of a spring. The experience was transformative. Born in 1926, he had already started drawing trains at the age of two, but this exhibition now inspired him to explore the inner workings of clocks, which ultimately led to his long-standing obsession with creating mechanisms exploring cause and effect.

Driven by creativity, Rhoads becomes a painter. He then invented toys and games. He merged these two loves of art and games when he began to create moving sculptures that generated musical sounds. After meeting artist Hans Van de Bovenkamp, ​​who in 1958 was sculpting fountains in New York’s West Village, Rhoads began to explore kinetic energy in his own art. Display of his bale machine on The David Frost Show in 1972 catapulted his career.

Its installation for the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City has led to even bigger projects. For over three decades Robert McGuire helped him with construction, then in 2007 Creative Machines took over the creation of the Rhoads projects.

He died earlier this year, on July 9, 2021, in France, where he was residing.

“People have always tended to equate machines with drudgery,” Rhoads said. “My goal is to show the machines in play.”

Take another byte out of the Big Apple

Image Credit: Elvert Barnes /

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